It is around 11 am on a weekday when a group of youngsters walk into a room. After a minor argument, the nine boys, all aged between 14 and 18, sit down for a game of carrom. One of them hits the coin arrangement with clinical precision and jumps with excitement as a white piece slips into a pocket.
The de-addiction centre meant for boys below the age of 18 in Chengalpattu — not very far from Chennai — is a place where new bonds are formed and old habits left behind. The Lifeline Centre for Prevention of Children from Alcoholism and Substance (Drug) Abuse — a 15-bed set up by the social defence department, in association with an NGO — is the first deaddiction centre in Tamil Nadu.
The State set up the centre last year after noting that many juveniles in conflict with the law tend to have problems with substance abuse — mainly cannabis and alcohol. A source at the department says, “We wanted to treat and rehabilitate such boys through a dedicated centre. The treatment here is free of cost and has been launched as a pilot project. After three years, when we assess the impact it has had, we will propose starting similar centres in other regions of the State.” Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015, has said it is imperative to set up separate facilities to treat such children.
The source adds that the Integrated Rehabilitation Centre For Addicts (IRCAs) functioning in the districts with the support of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment have been unable to tackle addiction among teens and adolescents, making it even more important that the State government set up dedicated centres.
The centre has so far treated 147 children from across the State. While a good number come from in and around Chennai, a few come from districts like Thiruvarur and Virudhunagar. Around nine boys are currently undergoing treatment at the centre.
The extent of addiction
Amruth*, a 17-year-old ITI student who took to ganja at the age of 14, has been at Lifeline undergoing treatment for the past six months after he started taking part in street fights. Vinay*, a 15-year-old, was caught stealing cell phones to buy ganja. A school student, he is being raised by a single mother who had no idea of his drug habit. The centre has seen boys as young as 10 coming in for rehabilitation.
Many of the boys who are admitted to the centre come from broken homes, are abandoned, or are school dropouts, which makes them more vulnerable to substance abuse. Environmental factors like being around an adult in the same locality or a parent who is also an addict are the most common causes for boys becoming drug addicts, say experts. A study titled ‘Prevention, early intervention, and harm reduction of substance use in adolescents’ by RC Jiloha says, 46.36 per cent of slum dwelling adolescents used both smokeless and smoking tobacco in addition to alcohol and cannabis and started using drugs during their childhood itself.
A study conducted by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights says that ‘the common drugs of abuse among children and adolescents are tobacco and alcohol, followed by inhalants and cannabis. The mean age of onset was lowest for tobacco (12.3 years), followed by inhalants (12.4 years), cannabis (13.4 years), alcohol (13.6 years), proceeding then to the use of harder substances like opium, pharmaceutical opioids and heroin (14.3-14.9 years), and substances through injecting route (15.1 years)’.
Cure and rehabilitation
Boys in need of help are referred to the centre by the Juvenile Justice Board or through the Child Welfare Committees in every district. On an average the boys spend at least a month for treatment at the centre. R Iyyanar, a counsellor at the centre, says that after an assessment of the addiction and psychiatric consultation at the Chengalpattu Government Hospital, where the doctors also prescribe medicines that go hand-in-hand with de-addiction, the boys are put through a strict regimen at the centre. The centre has a visiting doctor, a counsellor, a psychologist, a nurse who is deputed from 9 am to 6 pm, a visiting psychiatrist, a social worker and a round-the-clock warden.
Iyyanar says, “They begin their day at 6 am and after a session of yoga and breakfast, they sit through sessions called ‘Dinamum Oru Sinthanai (a thought for every day)’. They are made to realise how their actions and addictions are detrimental to them, their families and society. Everyday activities and outdoor sports like cricket energise them and they are counselled on a one-on-one basis. By the end of one month, on an average, they successfully overcome the addiction.”
Upon discharge, follow-ups are conducted through monthly consultations. Iyyanar adds that the efforts of rehabilitation include enrolling them in schools and courses or in jobs, according to their age. If the addiction is because of peer pressure, the family is advised to keep the boy away from them as there are chances that they can relapse.
The plain white and cream walls of the centre are brightened by sketches and drawings. Charts of the Tamil alphabet written in a neat handwriting, origami work, and wall hangings liven the space. Amruth sits quietly, turning around a Rubik’s cube. Next to him, Arvind* spreads out a chart with his sketch of Lord Ganesha. “I am yet to colour it,” he says. “I drew it because Ganesh Chathurthi is around the corner,” he adds with a smile.
Like Amruth and Arvind, many boys who have stayed at the centre have realised their potential, says Hamsaveni, the nurse on duty. She adds, “Apart from lessons in hygiene and upkeep, these activities are also helpful. They help them find their calling. A work of art or a sketch that earns them appreciation is also therapeutic.”
While some of the boys throw tantrums and are uncooperative at first, constant counseling that focuses on behaviour modification helps them adapt. “They stay away from family and friends for a month or so. In the beginning, it can be very difficult for them. But they soon adjust and discover their talent. When they go home, they surprise their parents and family with their skills,” he adds.
Need for more centres
In Chennai’s Kannagi Nagar, Shantha* is a worried mother. Her 16-year-old son, who dropped out of school a year ago, is addicted to cannabis and she is concerned about his future. “I do not know what to do. He sits at home all day, whiles away time and sleeps till late in the morning. When he is out in the evening, I know he meets friends who give him cannabis. I suspect he buys it with the pocket money his sister gives him.” Shantha says he is not alone and that there are many like him in the area. She was relieved when told that she can take her son to Chengalpattu for treatment at the centre, but she asks, “It is still far for me. Don’t they have such facilities anywhere closer?”
Given the extent of addiction, social workers say that there is a need for more such centres across the State. At the moment, only Delhi and Tamil Nadu have such facilities, claims S Ramanathan, psychologist, who has been in the social defence department for over 36 years. He adds, “Till about 30 years ago, it was beedi and alcohol. Now, drugs are more easily available.”
At the Institute of Mental Health (IMH), doctors are alarmed by the extent of cannabis addiction. Dr P Poorna Chandrike, director, IMH, says, “Earlier, we used to see them being addicted to varnish or petrol, but now they are exposed to cannabis at 12-14 years. Addictions can be a trigger for mental illnesses and at a young age, it can jeopardise their life permanently.”
Sources at the social defence department have acknowledged the need for more centres. However, they point out that the NGOs are not willing to partner up.
A Narayan, founder, Change India, and an activist in Chennai, adds that a thorough assessment of the addiction pattern among youngsters is required. “We have one study that was conducted almost a decade ago by the Department of Community Medicine, Madras Medical College, in about 40 government and government aided schools in and around Puzhal. It revealed that as many as 11 per cent of students in the 14 -16 years age group consumed alcohol. These numbers must have gone up now,” he says.
He adds that unless the programme is taken over by the health department, no positive results can be expected. “The current centre is a result of constant prodding from the civil society and not voluntary. We cannot expect much from it.”
The centre only looks at substance abuse in isolation, points out Andrew Sesuraj, project director, Loyola Knowledge Hub for Excellence in Child Protection. He says, “We have a centre set by the State, but we are late. We need more of them and we need to have a multi-pronged approach that covers social, mental and health aspects of addictions,” he says.
(* Names changed to protect the identity of the person.)